John Lee Mahin (1902-1984) was one of the greatest screenwriters. His credits include some of Hollywood’s most enduring classics: Scarface (1932), Red Dust (1932), Bombshell (1933), China Seas (1935), Wife Versus Secretary (1936), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941) with uncredited contributions to, among others, A Star is Born (1937), Test Pilot (1938), Gone With the Wind (1939) and The Wizard of Oz (1939). Mahin was director Victor Fleming’s most trusted screenwriter and in one way or another Mahin contributed to nearly every Fleming film.
Mahin understood star power. He instinctively knew that Harlow’s hyper sexuality was best exploited through humor and naughty wisecracks. Thus Red Dust and Bombshell were Harlow’s very best pictures.
Mahin also understood raw male power. And during Hollywood’s golden age, no male star approached Clark Gable’s dominance. Women wanted Gable and men wanted to be Gable.
One of the major challenges facing all screenwriters is the ability to write accurate dialogue—and silences—for a star. You can write all the great dialogue you want, but if it doesn’t fit the actor, the work is useless. For Gable, less words were always more. And more than any other screenwriter of his time, Mahin was finely attuned to Gable’s image and speech patterns.
Backstory: Interviews With Screenwriters of Hollywood’s Golden Age, by Pat McGilligan, is an invaluable peek into the rough and tumble world of studio screenwriters. In a 1979 interview, Mahin deftly summarized Gable’s unique appeal:
McGilligan: You were often described as Gable’s favorite screenwriter, and you played a large part in shaping his image. How would you characterize him?
Mahin: Quite, determined—no, not determined, just quiet. I said to [MGM producer] Hunt [Stromberg] once, “This guy’s got eyes like a child and a build like a bull.”
McGilligan: He was renowned at the time for having such a frankly lustful way of looking at women, unlike any other actor.
Mahin: Yeah, but it wasn’t a leer. It was a pleasant look. His eyes were open and frank like a child’s are, you see what I mean? There wasn’t any filth in them. Gable was frankly admiring. A woman never feels bad when she’s told that she’s got a lovely body, and that’s what his eyes said. Gable was a very gentle guy, as a matter of fact. Until he became irritated with a dame who was making a fool of herself, he was a very gentle man.